Colleges and universities that change their admissions strategies due to financial pressures as a result of coronavirus could be fined up to £500,000, the Office for Students has warned.
The moratorium on institutions offering unconditional offers to students ends today, however, the higher education regulator has revealed that it is consulting on a new regulatory condition that would allow for intervention where universities and colleges act in ways that “undermine students’ interests or threaten the stability of England’s higher education sector during the crisis".
Background: Longer 'pause' for unconditional offers
Coronavirus: NUS calls for £60m student hardship fund
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said that while it was understandable that colleges and universities were concerned about the potential loss of income, “there are limits to what would be considered a reasonable response to these concerns”.
Coronavirus: Concerns about unconditional offers
She said: “This new condition would allow us to impose penalties that would cancel out any financial benefit to universities of acting inappropriately, significantly reducing the likelihood of such behaviour occurring in the first place, but allowing us to intervene in a manner befitting the consequences if it did.
“We are alive to the concern that our proposals may overstep the mark in curtailing universities’ autonomy. But in these extraordinary circumstances, it is clear to me that the need to protect students’ interests and the stability of the sector is more important, and our strictly time-limited proposals are a necessary and proportionate means to do this.”
Under the proposals set out today, the OfS would introduce a new regulatory condition that would be in force for up to one year. If a college or university were found to be in breach of this condition, it could be fined up to – or in some cases beyond – £500,000 per breach.
The condition would “prevent universities from taking action that could have serious negative consequences for students or the higher education sector during the current crisis”. This could include:
- Changing student recruitment practices in an effort to increase student intake beyond normal levels, for example by converting existing conditional offers to unconditional, lowering academic or language requirements for international applicants, offering incentives for students to accept offers, or engaging in aggressive marketing activity designed to attract students away from other choices,
- Making misleading statements about other universities in an attempt to discourage students from attending them, for example by claiming that other universities are failing to support or provide tuition to their students during the pandemic,
- Making decisions that do not demonstrate high standards of good governance and could undermine public trust and confidence in higher education, for example by using government financial assistance for purposes that do not serve the interests of students or the public.
- Failing to comply with public commitments, for example by publicly agreeing to abide by voluntary requirements (such as a code of practice) and then failing to do so,
- Bypassing Ucas admissions processes where they would normally use them.
Call for 'clear guidance' for universities and colleges
Claire Sosienski Smith, vice-president for higher education at the NUS students' union, warned that the OfS "must take great care and provide clear guidance to ensure universities and colleges are not deterred from working together to make changes that support students for fear of regulatory action".
She said: “That the OfS felt it had to take this action proves yet again that the marketisation of higher education has failed students and created perverse incentives for institutions. It would benefit students and society far more to promote collaboration and cooperation among universities rather than wasteful competition. Students are ultimately still stuck in a system which threatens their education by leaving it to the whims of the market."
“Regulation alone will not address student concerns, and students are suffering in the here and now with uncertainty over their qualifications, disrupted placements and financial hardship."